PEORIA — As state championship games go, it would be tough to top the epic triple-overtime battle staged Saturday night by Nashville and Bloomington Central Catholic at Peoria's Carver Arena.
The instant classic included a late comeback from an 11-point deficit and 14 3-pointers from eventual victor Central Catholic in a 76-62 victory that saw the Saints outscore the Hornets 14-0 in the third overtime.
But the game also included an emotional performance by a 27-8 Nashville team that was stuck in neutral at 7-5 earlier this season.
"I really felt both teams left it out there tonight," said Nashville coach Brad Weathers, who guided his team to a second-place finish 25 years after his Carlyle Indians won the Class A state title. "I'm sure fatigue was a factor on both ends of the floor, especially with our bigger guys. That's 12 extra minutes of basketball."
The taller Hornets pushed and prodded and banged away at the smaller Saints using 6-foot-7, 230-pound sophomore Royce Newman (21 points, 11 rebounds) and 6-7 senior Clint Johannes (13 points, 10 rebounds) as the hammers.
Nashville led for all but a few seconds during the first four quarters against the unranked Saints. The Saints responded by holding Nashville scoreless during numerous possessions in overtime.
"They let us play, I'll tell you that," said Newman, who finally fouled out with 1:53 remaining in the third OT. "It was a physical game. It was a great experience, I thought it would never end. They came out on top today, but I wish we could have."
With 4 minutes, 18 seconds to go in regulation, it looked like all systems were a go for the Hornets' first state basketball title since 1978.
That's when Central Catholic guards Nick Norton and Jake Reinhart got in the way.
The pair combined for seven 3-pointers in the fourth quarter and three overtimes. Norton's four came in the fourth quarter and Reinhart had two at the start of the second overtime and another in the third.
Norton scored eight of his team-leading 25 points in the third OT, all on free throws.
Saints coach Jason Welch was thrilled with his team's 13-2 run during the final four minutes that forced overtime.
"The biggest key was not quitting," Welch said. "They kept fighting and fighting."
Both teams refused to give in, thrilling the large crowd at Carver Arena and those watching or listening from home.
"I'm proud of our kids," Weathers said. "I thought we did what we needed to do given our situation and abilities. They made some big, big threes that we couldn't quite recover from."
Johannes is one of two graduating seniors in the starting lineup and seven on the roster.
He was smiling through tears Saturday while being hugged by teammates and fans on the court following the emotional loss.
"It was amazing," Johannes said. "At the start of the year, everybody was kind of doubting that No. 1 preseason rank (the Hornets were tied for first) and I think we proved throughout the season we deserved that. We really stuck together at the end."
"It feels good, but you got second place and you didn't win it so you kind of feel bad about that," he said. "Our team fought very well. Our seniors were great mentors for us."
Nashville returns Newman, 6-6 junior Dylan Mueller and junior guard Daniel Thorson along with a solid underclass group.
"We've had a heck of a run and I couldn't be prouder of my players," Weathers said.
The last state championship game to go to triple-overtime was East St. Louis Lincoln's incredible 59-57 victory in 1989 over previously unbeaten Peoria Central on a buzzer-beating 18-footer by Vincent Jackson.
Jackson's heroic shot occurred 25 years ago, giving the Tigers their third straight Class AA state championship.
By the numbers
Central Catholic's 14 3-pointers were the most in any state title game and the most in state tourney play since Mendota hit 13 in the 1996 Class A super-sectional against Elgin St. Edward.
The old state title game record was 12 by Aurora Christian in the 1995 Class A state championship.
The Saints also broke the state tournament, state final and title game records for most 3-pointers attempted with 44. In fact, the 44 3-pointers hoisted by Central Catholic were more than any TWO teams had ever attempted in a state championship game.
They were the most in the state final tournament since East St. Louis and Peoria Richwoods launched a combined 47 in the 2000 Class AA third place game.